It’s a situation that happens with alarming frequency:
A child lets slip to a parent that a friend is suicidal. But in a twist, that child pleads for silence, because they were sworn to secrecy.
So what’s a parent to do?
Such thorny questions dominated a Community Conversation on Wednesday evening focused on suicide — an issue that’s of particular concern to El Paso County, where more people have killed themselves than anywhere else in the state from 2004 to 2017.
Roughly once every other day, someone intentionally kills themselves here. Such suicides — which numbered 1,785 in that time — routinely accounted for more deaths every year than automotive crashes and homicides combined.
At Wednesday’s panel discussion, hosted by The Gazette and KKTV and attended by about 175 people, experts emphasized one tactic above all others in combating that issue: offer help by speaking up.
“This is a community problem,” said Mark Mayfield, a suicide survivor and founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers. “It should fall on the shoulders of all of us.”
The conversation came amid a series of special reports by The Gazette in recent months detailing a mental health system in crisis across Colorado, with hundreds of thousands of Coloradans unable to access care in a hard-to-navigate system that’s often either unaffordable or inaccessible.
The issue of child and teen suicides dominated much of the panel’s discussion.
The people who kill themselves in El Paso County are generally younger than those in the rest of the state. From 2004 through 2017, 24 of the people who died by suicide were ages 10-14. And 118 of them were ages 15-19.
At Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, leaders have implemented a screening program aimed at sussing out the risk that a struggling student may attempt suicide. It’s quickly helped staff members identify dozens of students at dire risk of killing themselves.
During the 2018-19 school year, the assessments found 86 students were at “substantial” risk of attempting suicide, said Carolena Steen, District 12’s assistant superintendent. It was a marked increase from the previous school year, when 48 children were at such risk of suicide.
Steen attributed the increase to staff members doing a better job at identifying students struggling mentally or emotionally.
Last year saw two students die by suicide in the district — the first time any students in the district had killed themselves in six years, she said.
Steen said the district is using a bevy of programs to help children and teens who appear to suffer from far more stress now than they did several years ago.
“We know that kids need to feel safe,” Steen said. “We know that kids need to feel like they belong. We know that kids need to feel connected to adults.”
In the case of a child letting slip that their friend is suicidal, Mayfield and other panelists recommended action. Seek help from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or send in a report to Safe2Tell, they said.
“Whether or not your friend’s angry at you, they might be alive,” Mayfield said.
Panelists also said almost no one is too young to have an age-appropriate conversation about suicide and mental illness.
El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy John Hammond, a member of the agency’s behavioral health team, said he’s responded to calls for suicidal people ages 8 to 81.
The point, he said, is to let people know that help is available now, so that they later survive any mental or emotional crisis.
“If an opportunity were to arise, let’s start having that conversation,” Hammond said.